Uganda: Follow-Up and Follow-Through

Posted 26 October 2018 by Lorin Symington.

I’m following up & following through with our young solar powered entrepreneurs at the SmartUp Factory Tororo Hub. I’ve been receiving small reports and hearing from Plan Uganda and SmartUp staff that our trainees have been baking, making sales and getting paid! They’ve even taken to social media bragging about their new jobs. I was really excited to get back and see how they’ve been moving along.

When I arrived I was pleased to see the SOL5 in it’s new home, a fenced enclosure, looking shiny and well calibrated. That was one of the challenges the trainees were to face after I left. The SOL5 is located in a semi public place, near a main road and next to a youth center, where many young folks hang out, play football etc, so it was important to protect it. When I asked Augustin, one of the trainees and a senior mentor at Hub, how did the moving go he said “Very well, though it was a bit tricky… before they finished the fence, we carried the whole thing over, no dismantling!”

The SmartUp members were excited to hear about the Gulu training, I passed along greetings from their friends in Gulu and then we got down to business: I asked them to report their successes, challenges, lessons learned and plans for the future. As for successes, their accounting books show that they’ve all earned money and grown their stock of inventory since I left! I call that an unmitigated success.


Challenges & Solutions

At first, it seemed that other than the weather, things had been going very smoothly… too smoothly, I thought to myself. Once I got the students to open up about the challenges they had faced, the challenges just kept emerging:

Challenge #1: It’s still the rainy season up until November, so they are reporting that they haven’t been able to meet all the demand for their products, and they have had some products bake incompletely, resulting in losses.
Solution #1: Partner with a local baker and rent time in their oven or save up for a charcoal oven to be used during the rainy seasons.

Challenge #2: At first, clients complained about the quality of icing decoration.
Solution #2: The students did research about how to make better icing, and I bought them an icing dispenser with different shaped nozzles for flowers and ribbons etc.

Challenge #3: George, the Marketing Director, did a survey to find out how people viewed their products and found that their initial branding contained too much information so people didn’t bother to read it. Their packaging is also hard to find sometimes in Tororo and expensive.
Solution #3: They are redesigning their branding and moving to smaller, cheaper stickers. During my time in Kampala I will try to locate a reliable supplier of packaging materials (I hear this is also desired by Gulu Hub)

Challenge #4: The bread molds and cupcake molds that we had fabricated in Kenya are not the same size as the ones used here in Uganda, so this is an obstacle for pricing their goods and selling to shops who are accustomed to certain products.
Solution #4: Save for new molds built locally, to local specifications.

Challenge #5: There is need for a bread slicer. While bread is the least profitable of the items they prepare, it is still something that is good for earning since the demand is always high. Bread sold in the shops always comes pre-sliced.
Solution #5: Plan Uganda and GoSol are investigating bread slicing machines. Should they prove very expensive I have in mind a relatively cheap manual design I might have fabricated for the students.

Challenge #6: Shops have complained that the bread goes mouldy after a week.
Solution #6: Use preservatives. I’m not very happy about this solution… I normally try to avoid preservatives, but here in Uganda, essentially all packaged food has preservatives in it. I tried to make the case for selling bread for immediate consumption, and the students countered that they can’t plan for such at the moment because they can’t produce in cloudy weather. Perhaps when they have saved up for and bought a charcoal oven, they can get contracts with schools and other institutions to provide fresh bread daily. For now, they can sell to shops, and the shops demand preservatives.

Challenge #7: This was the big one. It’s rainy season and that means unpredictable weather. One of the girls nearly left the business after she had baked for 2 hours each day, earning a small but important amount of money, but then on Friday she tried to bake, the clouds came and ruined the bake and the loss of those ingredients cancelled out her earnings for the week. She was making the case that the individual baker should not have to pay for losses, that the business should pay for the loss. Immediately the group began arguing. It’s clear that they had had these discussions before.
Solution #7: The production manager is responsible for making decisions about whether to bake or not. If a baker proposes to bake, and the production manager agrees but it goes from blue skies to clouds while the bread is still proving, the business takes the loss. If a baker proposes to bake and the production manager says no, but the baker proceeds to bake anyway, the baker is individually responsible and the losses come out of his or her wages. This solution seemed to satisfy everyone.

As you can see, the students solved some challenges themselves, demonstrating dynamic thinking and real entrepreneurial motivation. Other problems they need some help with, but considering their business is getting started during the worst time of year, weather wise, I think they are doing marvellously well. In fact, December-January is going to be a big season for them as they are the sunniest months of the year, and with the holidays, marriages and graduations going on, our entrepreneurs are confident that they’re going to be pulling in piles of cash. By then, they’ll have these small challenges solved and be ready for the peak season.

My next stop is Kampala, the capital, where I’ll meet visit the original SmartUp Hub, explore solutions to these challenges for our pioneering solar bakers and explore options for fabricating the SOL5 locally because already demand is growing strong.


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